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She's putting her mark on the Kennedy Center
A section of the Reach, designed by Steven Holl Architects, the Kennedy Center’s first expansion in its nearly half-century history, in Washington, on Sept. 21, 2019. The center's expansion is the most concrete example yet of how Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, has put her mark on the center since becoming its president five years ago. Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times.

by Michael Cooper

WASHINGTON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Kennedy Center’s first expansion in its nearly half-century history had just opened, and its new spaces were being put through their paces for the first time.

A mid-September breeze swept over the lawn, where a free outdoor screening of “The Black Panther” on a giant new video wall had drawn an audience of hundreds the previous night. In the nearby Moonshot Studio, middle schoolers were making zoetropes inspired by the children’s book author and pigeon portraitist Mo Willems. Olmeca, a hip-hop artist, was getting a small crowd to clap to his beat in Studio K, just past studios J and F, while, in a nearby lecture hall, Rosdely Ciprian, a 14-year-old actress in the play “What the Constitution Means to Me,” spoke with an interviewer who had some thoughts on that subject: Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The expansion — called the Reach, a complex of versatile studios, classrooms and a cafe — is the most concrete (in this case, titanium white concrete) example yet of how Deborah F. Rutter has put her mark on the Kennedy Center since becoming its president five years ago.

Building it was not easy: Rutter had to raise more than $250 million in private money for construction-related costs and programming, double the initial estimate. And the project was delayed after its original plan to build a floating performance space on the Potomac River was scuttled amid environmental concerns and the objections of boaters. But Rutter got it done, succeeding while the nation’s largest performing arts complex, Lincoln Center, was cycling through short-term leaders and delaying its own big capital project.

Rutter, 63, said she viewed the expansion as part of her overall efforts to increase access to the Kennedy Center.

“Most important is this concept of feeling welcome,” she said. “When you walk into the Kennedy Center, it’s kind of like walking into any concert hall: The space is big and grand. There’s value to being inspired and knocked out by the grandeur. But there’s also something really important about feeling welcome, that this is really for you.”

The expansion, designed by Steven Holl Architects, offers a softening counterpoint to the Kennedy Center’s austere main building, which is so huge that the Washington Monument could be laid on its side in its main foyer with room to spare. It adds smaller spaces for rehearsals and performances; classrooms; outdoor areas; and a footbridge over the traffic of Rock Creek Parkway, linking the isolated arts complex to a trail along the Potomac.

If its ultimate uses seem inchoate, the Reach fits in neatly with the “build first, plan later” ethos of several new cultural buildings, including the Shed in New York.

But it gives Rutter more options as she works to shape the Kennedy Center and navigate what it means to be the National Cultural Center — as it was designated in the original legislation that created it — in Trump-era Washington.

It was perhaps unsurprising that Rutter, a respected veteran of the orchestra world, would win praise for helping turn around the underperforming National Symphony Orchestra by hiring the dynamic conductor Gianandrea Noseda as its music director. But she has also branched out, making the Kennedy Center a destination for stand-up comedy and expanding its hip-hop offerings under the aegis of Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest, the center’s first artistic director of hip-hop culture.

At times the Kennedy Center feels more like a regional arts center than a national one, presenting theater tours and visiting dance companies. But it also runs Washington National Opera and the National Symphony Orchestra (whereas at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic are independent organizations) and produces some theater work. It is best known nationally for its televised Kennedy Center Honors; unlike past presidents, President Donald Trump has chosen to stay away from the performances after some honorees criticized him.

Rutter said she did not believe the center’s art should be “overtly political” because it is officially a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. (As a memorial, it gets roughly $40 million a year in federal aid to maintain its buildings and grounds; the rest of its budget, which ranges from $210 million to $230 million a year, comes from ticket sales, earned revenues and donations.)

But it sometimes comes close. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Washington National Opera presented the premiere of “The Dictator’s Wife,” an opera about authoritarianism; the composer, Mohammed Fairouz, spoke about its associations with the Trumps. And the Reach is exhibiting President George W. Bush’s portraits of people who served in the military.

It was David M. Rubinstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center’s board, who pushed to update the center. He was inspired by the renovation of Lincoln Center, where he was a major donor, which was completed in 2012. He decided not to go to Congress for money; more than a decade ago, a far more ambitious $650 million rebuilding project collapsed after legislators balked at federal aid.

Rubenstein made the lead gift of $50 million; the rest was donated by other philanthropists, some of whom are seeking good will in Washington, including Boeing Co. and the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And he was instrumental in bringing Rutter to the center to succeed Michael M. Kaiser as president.

“It turned out that she had two jobs,” said Rubenstein, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, the investment firm. “One was to run the Kennedy Center, and the other was to get this addition off the ground.”

Rutter quickly put her knowledge of orchestras to work. She pressed the National Symphony Orchestra to move fast to hire Noseda — so fast, The Washington Post reported, that a board member resigned in protest. “I really was on the point of going somewhere else” when she acted, Noseda said in a telephone interview.

New Yorkers will get to hear the orchestra under his direction this month at David Geffen Hall, in a concert presentation of the second act from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

A free, 16-day festival inaugurated the Reach in September, bringing in roughly 100,000 new people for the Kennedy Center’s databases. As it was nearing its end, Rutter was walking around the original building’s dated lobbies.

“It’s the next project,” she said, looking around. “Updating all this.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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